HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND: “What About All My Books?”

By Kelly Moran

“What About All My Books?”

This column isn’t for everyone.  People who move to the Big Island typically bring some household goods: important pieces of furniture, family heirlooms, photographs, artwork and other decorations that have aesthetic or personal significance.  Most also bring some favorite books as well, for which a couple of shelves will suffice in their new home.  But some people bring a great many books here.  And if you’re one of them, it’s to you that this particular column is directed.

How (you may well ask) do I transplant a personal library?  It’s not just a matter of shelving – about which, more later.  It’s a matter of climate.  Hawaii, and the east side of the Big Island especially, is warm and humid all year long.  Mold and mildew have a particular affinity for book-paper here, and as if that weren’t bad enough, the paper in most books, especially older books, is vulnerable to decay, having been manufactured in a process that leaves it slightly acidic. If it gets damp, the moisture releases the acid, which then starts to eat away the pages.  (This, incidentally, is why professional framers mount photos and artworks on “acid-free” paper.)  The same fate awaits other paper collectibles that may be brought here from drier climates, like vintage magazines or sheet music.  Tightly compressed, moist paper is also the favorite breeding-ground of mold and mildew, as well as bookworms and “silverfish” roaches.

Obviously, the best way to maintain a library’s worth of books is to keep them very dry.  You could set aside a room for them, an extra bedroom, perhaps; seal it fairly well against the damp, and install an air conditioner or dehumidifier that vents to the outside.  This is relatively easy to do, though it’s not as practical as it seems. If you keep the room closed off, you may not use your books as often as you would if they were always visible. (Admit it: If you have that many books, you probably love looking at them as much as reading them!)  And you’ll be forever hectoring your family to “Close that door!”  Besides, air conditioners and dehumidifiers draw a lot of electric power, and at more than $0.30 per kilowatt-hour, Hawaii has the highest electric rates in America.

So, alternatively, you can shelve your books in the open, take each one down once in a while, and riffle the pages to air them out.  Do this, and you will still have to resign yourself to replacing the books you especially love, as the oldest editions inevitably disintegrate.

But wait – you can have it both ways: a library open 24/7 that nonetheless preserves your collection.  The secret is to ventilate it.  Even in microclimates where humidity is highest, at sea-level, a breeze may wick away excess moisture before it can cling to a page.  Let me tell you about two homeowners who have protected their large book-collections that way.

One family owns a trio of plantation-vintage houses that they rent by the room to graduate students and visiting researchers at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.  They have long had more books than their family home (one of the three) could hold; so a few years ago, they decided to create a library on the ground floor of one of the rental houses.  By coincidence, just as they were planning that renovation, the local Borders bookstore closed, and they wound up buying the display-shelves.

Like many of Hilo’s houses, theirs is built atop a concrete slab, supported by posts-and-piers on the ground floor within a low perimeter knee-wall.  They clad the exterior walls with cementacious Hardie panels, installed screened windows on three sides, laid colorful vinyl tiles on the slab, and installed lights and power outlets all around.  The slab stays cool, and the house above shades the new library.  Most days there’s cross-ventilation, a gentle breeze that helps to keep the books from molding, and also cools whoever’s using the library, which has become a bonus study-space for their tenants, too.

Library Under the House
Library Under the House: Beneath this house in Hilo, a large library features shelving from a shuttered bookstore, screened windows for ventilation, and plenty of comfortable seating.


On a ridge above Hilo, there’s a husband and wife to whom I sold a three-bedroom house that needed upgrades.  They were moving here from San Francisco, with 36 boxes of books.  And as they both worked from home, they needed space for an office as well as a library.  Using their extra bedrooms was not an option: one had to give up a wall to make their living room bigger, and the other had to remain as their guest-room.

What they did was to take over the old carport, which was more than two-cars wide, and already had a door into the house.  They built a wall and a big window on the side that had been open to the road, added a door into a new shed-roof carport around the corner, and installed a new hardwood floor of red eucalyptus robusta.  For the wooden shelving, which now fills three sides, they designed a simple, modular system using inexpensive Douglas fir, that their contractor sized to fit.

Carport Library
Carport Library:  This combination of library and home-office is crowded, but well-organized. Good ventilation keeps the books, which include many collectible vintage editions, safe from the predations of moisture and insects.

They also purchased a dehumidifier, but to their surprise, they have almost never run it.  The house is at a breezy 2,000-foot elevation, and the constant air circulation has been enough, by itself, to inhibit mold and mildew and discourage insects.  There is a small trade-off: during the winter months, that office/library is the chilliest room in the house.  But cool air holds less moisture than warm air, and that too helps keep the books safe in what would otherwise be the wettest time of year.

So, bibliophiles take note: you don’t have to give up your books to live in Hawaii.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *